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"Taut" became our word of the day as we started to test out the 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet. There is nothing loose about this car--it goes exactly where you point it and evenly distributes power when you push the accelerator. Its exterior lines are simple, with no excessively flared fenders or gaudy spoilers, maintaining the original 911 look. Our 911 model gets a lot of modifiers in this incarnation: the "4" means all-wheel-drive, the "S" marks it as a sport version, and "Cabriolet" is a fancy word for convertible.
But the 911 is more than just a racecar--it also offers cabin gadgets. Befitting its more than $100,000 price tag, the Bose stereo system produces excellent audio. On the downside, the navigation system only offers basic functionality, while the hands-free phone system is inconvenient, to say the least.
Test the tech: Tour planning
The navigation and phone system in the 2008 Porsche 911 4S Cabriolet comes as part of the Porsche Communications Management dashboard module. We noticed a feature in this system called Tour Planning, so figured a perfect tech test would be to program a nice tour through the winding roads around Marin county, north of San Francisco, and take a nice, long drive.
We hit our first snag before we set out when we tried to program our route into the navigation system. First, we tried to pick a location from the navigation system's map. To move the cursor over the map, the system showed us that we had to use the phone keypad buttons to the left of the screen. As the system is DVD-based, we found it very tedious to move the cursor to the locations we wanted to pinpoint in Marin as the map renders and moves slowly. Once we had the cursor over our preferred location, we couldn't figure out how to select that location as a destination. We reverted to entering a town in Marin county, letter-by-letter, using the tedious push button-dial interface. We got our town entered, but couldn't figure out how to add it to the Tour Planning function.
We finally figured out how to use the Tour Planning feature, which unintentionally brought us along some great roads.
Frustrated by the unintuitive system, we just started driving north, over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin county. The first destination we had in mind was Lucas Valley Road, a nice, winding strip of asphalt that led us further in to the good stuff, connecting with Nicasio Valley Road. We let the 911 run when we could, getting the feel of the car in the corners. Our route so far involved frequent 25 mph turns, for which we found the six-speed manual transmission's second gear worked just fine. The engine's 355 horsepower gives both second and third gears wide power bands, providing some latitude in which gear we could select for a turn.
Somewhere north of Nicasio we pulled over to give the navigation system another try. We went back to the Tour Planning feature and chose the Add destination function. Moving the cursor around on the map, we settled on the village of Tomales, on Highway 1 toward the coast. This time, we pushed the Enter button and held it down, until the system gave us the option of storing the destination. Then we chose another destination with the cursor, Point Reyes Station, also on Highway 1, and stored that as well. Going back to the Tour Planning feature, we were able to add our stored destinations. We also entered our office location, in San Francisco, and were pleased to see we could change the order of locations on our tour. Although the interface wasn't intuitive, we eventually figured it out.
To get to Tomales, the navigation system directed us along some spectacular roads, miles and miles of curving country road, with rarely a stop sign, intersection, or any hint of traffic. Out here, we really got to test the 911, putting on speed as we cranked the wheel around corners. With the car in Sport mode--which adjusts the suspension--and with its all-wheel-drive, we had a hard time stressing the car on any of these corners. Each turn we took, the car followed the direction we pointed it, with no squealing or complaining, and not a hint of slide. We eventually found some tight corners where we got a little sound from the tires, but overall the 911 4S handles incredibly well. We got a sense of the all-wheel-drive when we took some fast corners with uneven pavement, where one wheel jounced and felt as if it lost some grip, letting the other tires dig in. The 911's all-wheel-drive system biases torque toward the rear wheels, but it can shift 5 percent to 40 percent of torque to the front.
With the top down, we had unimpeded views of Tomales Bay.
After hitting our first destination, we drove down Highway 1 toward Point Reyes Station, taking in the spectacular ocean views and further testing the car's cornering capability. We had the top down for our entire trip, and the unimpeded views were a nice bonus. The windshield and rear wind deflector kept cabin turbulence to a minimum. The 911's climate control system kept us at the comfortable 70 degrees we had set. We were on the verge of ascribing the excellent roads the navigation system had calculated for us to some winding road algorithm of the Tour Planning feature until we got to Point Reyes Station. From here, the navigation system would have sent us over to boring Highway 101, so we had to conclude that Tour Planning is a simple multiple waypoint feature, with no special bias toward better driving roads. With plenty of Highway 1 south of us, we added a waypoint, something we have become expert in, for Stinson Beach, so we could enjoy the rest of our drive along the coast.
From this trip, we drew a few conclusions:
• The Tour Planning feature, while useful, is nothing special.
• The 911 4S's handling is spectacular.
• Cruising over country and coastal roads with the top down makes for an exhilarating afternoon.
In the cabin
Our 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet came with its body painted Carrera White and with a Cocoa soft top, a color combination we didn't care for. This combination was carried into the cabin, where the $3,795 Natural Leather option meant practically every surface--seats, dashboard, doors, and stack--were covered in cow. Inside, the Carrera White showed up in the metal-covered console. Color combination aside, we liked the look of the stitching for the leather, and the metal console cover gave the car a retro feel, as if the exterior was carried over into the cabin.
The maps look good on the navigation system, but it offers only basic features.
The navigation system, standard in the 911 Carrera 4S, doesn't mar the cabin look. Its plastic buttons are nicely designed while the maps look good, with bright colors and decent resolution. However, it's far from a cutting-edge system, with a limited points-of-interest database and no special features such as traffic reporting. We found its destination entry method unintuitive and tedious, as you have to spin a small dial from letter to letter, then push it to select. Route guidance worked reasonably well, with a voice prompt and arrows in the speedometer display to indicate upcoming turns.
We were more pleased with the Bose audio system, which uses nine speakers, including two tweeters and a center fill on the dashboard, a midrange and a woofer in each door, and two wide-band speakers behind the front seats. (There are, ostensibly, rear seats, but they seem built for interrogation.) Even though this system doesn't use a subwoofer, the bass was still very strong, while the highs were crystal clear and the midranges came through with a robust sound. This audio system made our music sound clear and strong.
The 911 lets you name your CDs, a feature of only marginal usefulness.
We ended up listening to our test CD repeatedly, as there aren't a lot of music source options in the 911 Carrera 4S. The only modern sources are Satellite radio (inactive on our car) and a single-disc player that can read MP3 CDs. The car doesn't have a hard drive, a disc changer, or even an auxiliary audio input. At least navigating MP3 CD folders is easy with this system. As a feature we hadn't seen before, the system lets you name standard Red Book CDs. We put in our Covert Operations CD, entered in that name, then every time we put the CD in the system, it would show the proper name. It's an interesting feature, but we're not sure who would sit around programming in the names of all their CDs.
As for hands-free calling, instead of using a standard Bluetooth system, the PCM has a little drawer in which you are supposed to put a GSM SIM card. With a SIM card in place, the system promises all sorts of features, such as the capability to receive text messages. However, we tried multiple cards and couldn't get it to work. We don't particularly like this paradigm anyway, as you would either have to pull your SIM card out whenever you got in the car, which would be tedious, or get a separate SIM card for the car, meaning your car would have its own phone number.
This attractive timer comes with the Sport Chrono Package and can be used to monitor lap times.
One final note on the cabin tech: we had the Sport Chrono Package, which puts a smart-looking timer dead-center on top of the dashboard. This package lets you keep lap times, something you might very well want to do with this car, as it would be extraordinarily fun to drive on the track.
Under the hood
Porsche maintains its tradition by using a 3.8-liter, boxer-style six-cylinder engine that's mounted in back on the 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet. This engine produces 355 horsepower at 6,600rpm and 295 foot-pounds of torque at 4,600rpm, rocketing the lightweight 911 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, according to Porsche. We found ample available acceleration in just about any gear, at just about any speed. Although, because of the smaller torque figure, we had to give it significantly more gas when climbing hills, unlike some cars that walk right up inclines.
Porsche refined this engine nicely and built it perfectly for this car. While other sports car manufacturers add cylinders, the 911's six cylinders give the right kind of power when you keep the rpm's between 4,000rpm and 6,000rpm and use the gearbox to power the car through corners. One advantage of the engine, particularly relevant these days, is its fuel economy. The EPA rates the 911 Carrera 4S at 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, similar to what you get from Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 in the Infiniti G35. During our driving, we saw real-world numbers better than the Infiniti, pulling an average of 20.3 mpg. However, there's nothing special about the 911's emissions, as it merely earns the minimum LEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
The six-speed transmission has wide power bands for second and third gears.
Although a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission is available for the 911 Carrera 4S, we were happy to have the six-speed manual. The aluminum shifter felt good as we rowed the car through its gears, running it up to sixth on the freeway while keeping it in second and third gears, with occasional dashes up to fourth, while in Sport driving mode. We covered some of the handling above, but it can't be emphasized enough that the 911 Carrera 4S takes corners beautifully. On our approach to corners we would hit the brakes, which slowed the car smoothly, downshift if needed, then put on the gas into the turn. Each corner gave us more confidence in this car's capabilities, as the car showed little stress. The steering is well-balanced, seeming neutral on over- or understeer. This 911 would be a fantastic car on the track, where you could really let it run.
These buttons control the 911's Porsche Active Suspension Management system, which lowers the car 0.4 inch in sport mode.
A couple of other technologies help the 911 Carrera 4S perform. Two buttons, one marked with a shock absorber and the other labeled Sport, change the car's dynamics substantially. This is the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), which lowers the car 0.4 inch in Sport mode. We tried some corners with the system in normal driving mode, and felt some bounce. In Sport mode, that type of bounce was dampened considerably. However, if we didn't put it in Sport mode, PASM would have noticed the type of driving we were doing, and adjusted the car's suspension on its own. Porsche Stability Management is also included on the 911 Carrera 4S; it's a traction control system that lets the car slip 5 percent to 7 percent before it intervenes. PSM can be turned off, but as we were driving on public roads, we left it on. Finally, an automatic spoiler in back rises when you hit 75 mph, then drops back down at 37 mph.
The base price of the 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet is an even $100,000, which includes standard equipment such as the navigation system, PASM, and PAS. Among the $15,390 worth of options on our car was the Bose high-end audio system, which accounted for $1,390. With its $860 destination charge, the total came out to $116,250.
We can't help but give this car a top score for performance. It handles extremely well, and we're impressed that Porsche wrings this kind of power and efficiency out of a six-cylinder engine. Our design score is on the high side because the car looks good without being gaudy, although we question the practicality of the rear seats. We were also quite happy with the way the top lowered and raised at the touch of a button, latching itself into place. The only area where the 911 Carrera 4S takes a hit is in the cabin electronics. The navigation system works and it looks good, but you can get more features from a portable unit. The phone system seems as if it would be great, if it worked with any of our GSM SIM cards. Also, the radio lacks audio sources, without even offering an auxiliary audio input, something that has become standard on most cars.